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Casper
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265 people to be tested, quarantined after positive case at Natrona County long-term care facility

Roughly 265 staff members and residents at a Casper long-term care facility will be tested and quarantined after a case of the coronavirus was confirmed there, health officials said Thursday.

The contagious nature of COVID-19 and the high-risk setting prompted the testing of all staff and residents as soon as possible, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department said in a statement. That testing was performed Thursday.

The announcement did not name the facility. However, the Wyoming Department of Health identified it as Life Care Center of Casper. The center’s director, Tess Bailey, later confirmed that a resident at the facility did test positive for COVID-19 and is now receiving care at a local hospital.

On Wednesday night, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department learned that the resident had tested positive. That person was tested after exhibiting symptoms, the health department said. It’s unclear where that resident was originally exposed to the virus.

The department did not offer details about the person who was infected, other than to clarify that the resident was a previously identified case.

COVID-19 spreads easily and is of particular concern to health officials when it’s found in a nursing home or other long-term care facility, where older residents live in close quarters. Older people are also more likely to develop severe symptoms from the disease. On Thursday, the state announced the death of a COVID-19 patient at a Washakie County nursing home that’s experiencing a coronavirus outbreak.

Mass testing

The county health department is relying heavily on its partnership with Wyoming Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, to conduct so many tests at once, said Hailey Bloom, the agency’s spokeswoman.

“They offered us three testing sites, plus testing at our facility,” Bloom said. “Without that, it would be a logistical nightmare.”

Bloom said the residents are quarantining at the facility itself. Given that some staff members are needed for the center to remain open, the Wyoming Health Department has permitted asymptomatic staff members to continue working. However, those workers would only be allowed to leave their homes to work, Bloom explained.

“Due to the large number of staff members required to quarantine, these individuals who are asymptomatic but awaiting test results will be allowed to work only with appropriate personal protective equipment to ensure residents receive continued and required care,” the Health Department said in an announcement.

Bailey confirmed in a Thursday evening statement that all staff and residents had been tested. If a resident tests positive, he or she will be placed in isolation within the building, she explained. Staff will recover at home and only return to work when they meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“Our primary concern is for the health and safety of our residents, nursing staff and other care providers,” Bailey said. “They are on the front line of this unprecedented outbreak. Our staff is trained in proper use of PPEs and are following all relevant guidelines in infection control. They are putting in heroic efforts to ensure that our patients are receiving excellent care.”

Bailey said the center would stay in regular contact with families and, since visitation remains restricted, would coordinate calls, video chats and window visits.

The positive case at Life Care comes amid a resurgence in cases in Natrona County, with 17 in the past nine days. Prior to that, the county had gone three weeks without a case. Two confirmed cases were reported Thursday, including a man in his 70s and a woman in her 30s.

On Wednesday, health officials here closed a local day care facility after a child tested positive for COVID-19. In that instance, 32 staff and children were tested and a total of 58 people were told to quarantine.

Bloom said the results of the tests from the childcare and long-term care facilities could be ready in as soon as 24 hours but might take longer.

“The (Wyoming) Department of Health is prioritizing both of these tests,” Bloom said. “They know this is an urgent situation and they know we need to get these results as quickly as we can.”

Focus on long-term care facilities

Also on Wednesday, the state announced a new testing program to address outbreaks at long-term care facilities. As part of that program, all staff and residents at facilities with identified cases will have to be tested weekly until the ongoing outbreak disappears.

“Staff from our department are helping with the overall situation in Casper through consultation and support for contract tracing, as well as prioritized testing at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory,” said Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti.

Two outbreaks have already occurred at long-term care facilities in Wyoming. Over the weekend, the state announced that five staff members and four residents at Worland Healthcare Rehabilitation Center tested positive for COVID-19. The latest person in Wyoming to die after contracting coronavirus, an older man who live at the center, was announced Thursday.

The other outbreak occurred in March at the Showboat Retirement Center in Lander. In that instance, 16 people were sickened.

Additionally, 22 cases have been linked to Wyoming Behavioral Institute in Casper.

To date, Wyoming has recorded more than 600 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with nearly 200 additional probable cases, according to the health department.

Twelve residents have died after contracting COVID-19.

To limit the virus’ spread, Gov. Mark Gordon and state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist in March ordered the closure of schools and many businesses where people congregate, including bars, gyms and hair salons.

Gyms and personal care establishments were able to reopen with some restrictions May 1. The state has also allowed restaurants to open again — with conditions. And on May 15, the state allowed an order limiting public gatherings to 10 people or less was allowed to expire in favor of one setting the limit at 25.


State-and-regional
top story
Yellowstone reopening quiet as Memorial Day approaches; Sholly slams critics

Visitors aren’t pouring into Yellowstone National Park at high levels since the state of Wyoming allowed two of the park’s gates to open Monday.

That’s not unusual for the gateway community of Cody, though, according to Claudia Wade, director of the Park County Travel Council. Tourism to the town, located about 45 minutes from Yellowstone’s East Entrance, doesn’t usually pick up until mid-June, she said.

“We hope it kind of builds,” she said, and this Memorial Day weekend should bring in regional visitors, but “no hordes.”

BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette 

Tourists stop at a Yellowstone Lake pullout to take photos on the first day Yellowstone National Park was reopened after seven weeks of closure due to the novel coronavirus.

Gates

Traffic counts at the two gates — the other is at the South Entrance near Jackson — were about 75 percent of last year for the first two days, according to Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

“It’s probably pretty representative of day use,” he said.

That’s because right now the park is not allowing camping and has no hotels or cabins open for lodging. There also are no food services available or stores open. So tourists have to be self-sufficient and leave the park at night.

Ensuring people exit hasn’t been much of a problem so far, Sholly said, with only a few RV owners cautioned that they couldn’t camp out in parking areas.

BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette 

A temporary sign is posted along a walkway at Yellowstone's Artist Point. The park spent $20,000 on permanent signage that is being made.

Montana

On Tuesday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced he is dropping the 14-day quarantine rule for out-of-state travelers on June 1, which will be a blessing for businesses like fishing outfitters. The so-called Phase 2 of Montana’s reopening process could also include the opening of the three Montana gates to Yellowstone — one each at the gateway communities of West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City.

“There are some things we still need to work out with the state and counties,” Sholly said. “A lot we have addressed or are addressing.”

The park needs to be self-sufficient on testing and surveillance to satisfy Montana, he said.

Although the governor was asked about a limited opening of Montana’s entrances to Yellowstone, Sholly said that doesn’t make sense. The park could cap entrance at a certain number of visitors, but he said that could create more problems for gateway communities as tourists back up into the small towns instead of visiting the park.

BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette 

Matt Gibbens, at right, takes photos while visiting Artist's Point overlook of the Lower Yellowstone Falls on Monday.

Hanging on

The opening can’t come soon enough for Jeannette Mikos, who with her husband owns and operates the Yellowstone Basin Inn outside Gardiner. She said the delay in opening Montana’s North Entrance to the park has cost them $20,000 in business in May due to canceled reservations.

“What we don’t understand is, this is a federal property and they’re not the ones to decide to open it,” Mikos said. “It’s just his own decree.”

On Tuesday, Bullock explained his decision saying his staff wanted to make sure that visitors “don’t bring problems from their state to our state,” meaning coronavirus infections. He also said it made sense to see how things worked in the park before the Montana gates were opened.

But Mikos is taking the governor’s decision personally, saying Bullock has taken revenue away from her family as well as other Gardiner-area business owners.

“It’s just been really devastating for all of us,” she said. “I don’t know if Gardiner will turn into a ghost town.”

Even a June 1 opening for Montana’s Yellowstone gates, should it come, isn’t quick enough for Mikos, and she’s skeptical. So she’s contacted her local legislator and U.S. senator seeking help, all to no avail.

Yellowstone reopens after 7-week pandemic closure

Masks

For the most part, Sholly said the park’s reopening has gone smoothly considering all of the new considerations in place to prevent spread of COVID-19. About $135,000 in additional funding went to purchase personal protective equipment, additional hand sanitizers and wipes, special disinfect sprayers, face masks, thermometers and $20,000 in signage.

Yet “armchair” critics have taken public swipes at the park staff and its protocols as photos of people without masks gathering at Old Faithful have been published. The “hyperbolic reporting” angered Sholly, specifically a Guardian headline stating “‘Not a mask in sight:’ thousands flock to Yellowstone as park reopens.” The quote came from a National Parks Conservation Association official who had been checking the Old Faithful webcam.

“That’s total bull,” Sholly said. “I didn’t see massive numbers of people in close proximity.”

In past news conferences the park superintendent has put some of the onus of being safe on visitors, encouraging them to take precautions to self-protect and noting that he didn’t expect his staff to be the social-distancing police.

“If people are not comfortable coming to Yellowstone and having a certain number of visitors without masks, they probably shouldn’t come,” he said.

“The more people you put in here, the harder it will be” to keep them six feet apart, Sholly added.

The park won’t institute a mask policy for outdoors, but may when it opens its visitor center and other indoor facilities. When stores operated by concessionaires open, he noted, the stores’ staffs will be handing out masks to visitors before tourists are allowed to enter.

Until then, the park’s employees will continue to tweak their actions and signage to keep visitors and workers as safe as possible.

“We’ll see how the next couple of weeks go,” Sholly said. “This weekend will be a good test.”

The big test, he noted, will be when Montana opens its gates. Although 90 percent of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, about 70 percent of visitors enter from Montana.

“We’ll be continually adjusting when the Montana gates swing open,” he said. “If we get later into June and things are going well, then we’ll have a conversation about what more we can open.”

Likewise, if things aren’t going well the park could “pull back.”

Photos: Yellowstone re-opens after COVID-19 shutdown

Energy
breaking top story
Coal firm to furlough or lay off over 100 workers at Wyoming mine

Coal firm Navajo Transitional Energy Company announced Thursday it will furlough 93 hourly workers and lay off eight salaried employees at its Antelope coal mine near Wright in response to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest workforce reduction adds to a string of layoffs hitting numerous mines across Wyoming coal country. This spring, coal firms have let go over 550 miners throughout the Powder River Basin, the country’s epicenter for coal production.

“As COVID-19 continues to ravage the U.S. economy, domestic demand for coal has declined,” Catie Kerns, a spokeswoman for NTEC, told the Star-Tribune in a statement. “While we have taken steps to preserve as many jobs as possible, including temporary pay reductions, the continued decline has resulted in the need for additional workforce reductions at our Antelope Mine, near Gillette.”

The eight salaried workers will receive severance, according to the company. All affected workers should be eligible for the extended unemployment benefits provided under the federal coronavirus relief act, according to NTEC. The company does not anticipate laying off or furloughing workers at its two other mines in the basin.

But this is not the first time NTEC instituted layoffs since assuming ownership of three Powder River Basin coal mines in October.

Last month, 57 workers at the Antelope mine were let go. In addition, 73 miners were laid off at its Spring Creek Mine, which sits in southern Montana and employs workers from northern Wyoming.

Customers buying the coal produced at the Antelope mine largely hail from the upper Midwest’s industrial belt, a region also hit hard by the pandemic. Decreased electricity demand has led to less need for coal.

“Demand for coal from the Antelope mine has been significantly reduced due to continued economic challenges faced by the mine’s customer base,” said Kerns, the NTEC spokeswoman. “As conditions improve we will look to bring back the workforce and continue providing high quality coal as we support the economic recovery of the region and U.S.”

Overall employment and production in the basin’s coal industry have declined steadily since their peak in 2015, according to data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Utility companies have gradually turned to less expensive natural gas or renewable energy sources to supply electricity to customers.

The Antelope mine employed 602 employees as of March 31, according to Mining Safety and Health Administration. Workers there produced 5.4 million tons of coal this year’s first quarter, a decline when compared to the 6.7 million tons produced during the same quarter in 2019.

Demand for coal continued to plunge in the early months of 2020 — with output during the first quarter setting a new two-decade low, according to data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The COVID-19 crisis appears to have hastened the commodity’s decline.

“What you’re seeing mine by mine is that labor forces are being adjusted to the current environment, and you have the (structural) decline of coal that you’re seeing on top of that, which would just hasten the need to lay people off,” Rob Godby, a University of Wyoming economist, told the Star-Tribune in the days following the first wave of layoffs at NTEC’s mines. “The short of it is: Under the current conditions with the structural decline, you would expect layoffs, and not insignificant layoffs, across the basin.”

Forecasts released by the Energy Information Administration earlier this month predicted market conditions would likely worsen this year due to a slump in energy demand, declines in global and domestic steel production and public health measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A railroad engineer who documents Wyoming's coal country in photos